Coca cultivation in the rainforests of Colombia
Crop eradication efforts failing in Colombia according to new White House Report
April 2, 2005
A new report from the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy shows that a massive US-backed aerial spraying offensive last year failed to reduce the area of coca under cultivation in Colombia. Figures show that 281,694 acres of coca remained in Colombia at the end of 2004, an increase from the 281,323 acres remaining after 2003’s campaign.
Colombia is a leading producer of coca, the plant that provides the main ingredient of cocaine. Much of Colombia’s coca is grown by poor farmers because it generates more income than any other crop. Typically farmers convert the plant into coca paste and sell it to groups — including paramilitaries and Colombian rebels — who refine it into cocaine and export it to markets like the United States, which is the world’s largest consumer of the narcotic.
Drug eradification efforts have focused on aerial fumigation programs where herbicides (a mixture that includes Monsanto Corporation’s Roundup and Cosmo-Flux 411F) are dropped by crop-duster planes on suspect vegetation. Since the concoction is a non-selective herbicide, surrounding vegetation — including subsistence crops and native plants — are killed as well. Local reports suggest that farmers often replant coca seedlings soon after spraying, making the whole exercise somewhat futile.
Aerial spraying may also be causing coca cultivation to shift to new regions. In March 2005, the Associated Press reported that large-scale coca production was moving into the extensive rainforests of the Chocó state, a biodiversity hotspot in northwest Colombia. Poor farmers are clearing forest to plant coca seedlings while hunting local wildlife for food.
The ecological impacts of coca production are significant as well. Each acre of requires clearing of roughly four acres of forest while the dumping of chemicals used to process coca leaves (including kerosene, sulfuric acid, acetone, and carbide) pollutes local waterways.
Additionally, critics of the US’s efforts in Colombia note that the eradication program has done little to slow the supply of cocaine that enters the U.S. Despite increased worldwide demand, prices of cocaine have been steadily dropping over the years on American streets, indicating availability of the drugs has not diminished.
OVER THE JUNGLES OF WESTERN COLOMBIA — The newest battle in Colombia’s drug war is being fought in one of the largest tracts of virgin rain forest in the Americas, an expanse of stunning beauty where crystalline rivers weave around mountains hugged by a blanket of trees.
Harried by eradication campaigns elsewhere, drug gangs have been moving into the remote region, bringing in millions of seedlings for coca — the bush used to make cocaine — to be planted by peasants who are felling patches of trees.
U.S. crop-dusters, which helped wipe out more than a quarter-million acres of coca last year in other parts of Colombia, have begun spraying the new fields in their costly cat-and-mouse struggle with traffickers.
An Associated Press team, squeezed alongside door gunners, flew over the region Thursday aboard a helicopter gunship to look at the new front in the war.
Stretching as far as the eye can see, the rain forest in Choco state reaches into neighboring Panama. It is one of the planet’s wettest regions, penetrated by few roads.
As the Vietnam War-era Huey helicopter clattered deeper into the isolated region, evidence of the drug gangs became apparent.
A machine-gunner pointed to an ugly gash in the trees. Then another. And another.
Some fields carved from the jungle were green with budding coca.
Cocaine producers turned to this rain forest, bordered on the west by the Pacific Ocean and the east by the Andes Mountains, after being hit by extensive coca-eradication campaigns in southern, northern and eastern Colombia.
Analysts learned of the encroachment by examining satellite photos, which showed the new coca fields popping up, said Capt. Miguel Tunjano of the Colombian Counternarcotics Police. Operations to crush it were quickly mounted to prevent a “balloon effect” — where drug production pops up in a new area after being squeezed in another.
Three years ago, this happened when spray planes wiped out coca crops in southern Colombia’s Putumayo state and drug gangs moved their fields to Narino state in the southwest.
“Back then, we focused the spraying in Putumayo and it boomed in Narino,” Tunjano said. “If we don’t attack the problem in Choco now, the same thing will happen there.”
Maj. Juan Pablo Guerrero, commander of police counterdrug operations in Choco, said traffickers — who use peasant farmers to grow the coca — are making a major move into the region.
So far, 3,420 acres of coca have been detected in Choco and 1,075 acres have been sprayed, Guerrero said at a forward operating base in Tulua, near the southeastern edge of the rain forest.
Government troops recently carried out a raid in which numerous drug labs and seedbeds were destroyed, he said.
“We found 152 seedbeds with 10,000 plants in each one,” Guerrero said.
The U.S. government has contributed billions of dollars to the counternarcotics effort in Colombia since 2000 and has said the aid will continue.
Gen. Bantz Craddock, head of the Miami-based U.S. Southern Command, said more than 342,000 acres of coca and 9,500 acres of opium poppy — record amounts — were destroyed in Colombia last year.
In the 1970s, advances were made in the methods for accessing the canopy by employing mountaineering techniques with ropes and the building of platforms for extended observation-based study. Despite major improvements upon earlier techniques, the small, stationary yet expensive platforms offered only a narrow range of observation and the use of ropes was often dangerous. More modern methods of access have included the use of ultra-lite planes, blimps, ski lift-like trams and remote controlled pulley systems. One other innovative experiment involved balloon rafts, placed on top of rainforests in West Africa and French Guyana. While this method afforded greater access on a more long-term basis, the projects were very costly and the weight of the rafts resulted in damage to the canopy.
Canopy walkways are currently one of the most popular and practical modes for reaching this forest level. Large areas of forest, connected by a network of swinging bridges, are now accessible and the walkways have the added benefit of having little negative impact on rainforest habitats and rhythms. The only real threat inherent in these walkways is overuse, not likely by scientists, but by tourists who are visiting the rainforests in increasing numbers and frequency. The cost of building and maintaining the walkways is often recovered by the profits from ecotourism. There is always room for improvement however, and the Global Canopy Programme aspires to be the next big thing.
The unique benefits of the cranes are clear, but there are certain issues that remain problematic. While the cranes will rotate a safe distance above the canopy top, for airborne animals like bats and birds, (which are extraordinarily plentiful in the rainforest), one wonders what effect these new, large foreign bodies will have on the natural existence and movement patterns of resident animals. There is also the question of noise and heat emitted by the cranes in terms of movement and from generators powering the labs and how that will impact the organisms and their environment. Finally, while the cranes will be helicoptered into the forest in pieces, the process of construction and erection of the machines will undoubtedly cause some inevitable damage. These issues aside, the Global Canopy Project looks to be the most revolutionary project on the horizon for canopy study. Hopefully, the information collected over the coming years will proffer new insight on this fugitive frontier.
The Rainforest Canopy